SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will be one of the primary players giving shape to the U.S. Senate's brand-new Tea Party Caucus during the body's inaugural meeting today in Washington, D.C.
In concert with Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Lee is one of the three founding senators of the caucus. He sees the new caucus as a mechanism for catalyzing the dialogue between tea partiers and Congress.
"I'm looking forward to (the meeting)," Lee said by phone from Washington, D.C. "I think it's a great thing. I'm a strong fan of the tea party movement and very much consider myself part of it.
"The purpose of the caucus is to open channels of communication between the U.S. Senate and those who identify with or consider themselves part of the tea party movement. We want to make clear that those channels are open, and we want to make sure that those channels are open. That's why we're doing this."
The significance of the caucus is rooted in the irony that the tea party, bitingly anti-establishment by its very nature, is now gaining a measure of formal recognition in the upper chamber of Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who rode a tsunami of Tea Party support to a stunning come-from-behind victory in the 2010 election, touched on that dynamic in explaining his decision to forego joining the Tea Party Caucus.
"My concern is that politicians all of a sudden start co-opting the mantle of tea party," Rubio recently told the Florida political blog The Shark Tank. "If all of a sudden being in the tea party is not something that is happening in Main Street, but rather something that is happening in Washington, D.C., the tea party all of a sudden becomes some sort of movement run by politicians."
Unlike Rubio, Lee believes that the caucus is a natural extension of the tea party movement.
"Both the caucus and the movement are affectionately referred to by tea partiers as leaderless movements," Lee said. "We've gone out of our way in setting up the Tea Party Caucus to make clear that even the caucus is leaderless. We consider it part and parcel of the spontaneous, organic, nationwide grass-roots political phenomenon that the tea party is."
Although Rubio and fellow tea party-backed freshman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have no plans to join the new caucus, a smattering of some of the most influential private citizens associated with the tea party movement will be present. These include Campaign for Liberty president John Tate, Tea Party Express chairman Amy Kremer and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.
Quin Monson, a BYU political science professor and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, is taking a wait-and-see approach regarding how much influence the Tea Party Caucus will ultimately wield.
"Members of Congress form (caucuses) all the time across a variety of interests," Monson said. "They're regional, they reflect demographic groupings and other interests, and they come up with names all the time. I think they serve a purpose of allowing like-minded members of Congress to identify each other and communicate with each other, and they symbolize something back to constituents.
"Other than that, I don't know what we can say much about the Tea Party Caucus within the (Senate) because it hasn't been around long enough to say much about."